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Battle of the Paddle knows no limits of age, athletic skill or physical ability

Dozens of children prepare to take off before the kid’s SUP Race at the Battle of the Paddle. Photo by Steve Breazeale
Dozens of children prepare to take off before the kid’s SUP Race at the Battle of the Paddle. Photo by Steve Breazeale

By Andrea Papagianis

A loud crack echoed from the Pacific as hundreds of stand-up paddlers hit the water Saturday morning. They came in four waves, and one-by-one took to the surf, each bringing a rush of energy, competitive intensity and a thunderous crash marking their start.

Hundreds line Doheny State Beach Saturday to break last year's Guinness World Record setting at the Battle of the Paddle. Photo by Andrea Papagianis
Hundreds line Doheny State Beach Saturday to break last year’s Guinness World Record setting at the Battle of the Paddle. Photo by Andrea Papagianis

An event record 481 competitors traversed the course, in a 4-mile-long race through the crashing waves and smoother waters off Doheny State Beach. Out past Dana Point’s Harbor jetty and rounding six buoys, 464 would successfully complete the task, 60 more finishers than one year ago when the world’s record for largest stand-up paddleboard race was set.

The lines between spectator and competitor were blurred last week as thousands gathered at Doheny to watch and compete in numerous racing divisions at the sixth annual Rainbow Sandals Gerry Lopez Battle of the Paddle. Organizers call it the largest SUP contest on earth, and whether the numbers stack up or not, this annual event at Doheny continues to grow as the sport it has introduced to the community evolves.

“It is evolving every day,” said legendary surfer Gerry Lopez, known as the “King of Pipeline,” for his famed conquering of the behemoth Banzai Pipeline in the 1970s.

“It seems like these days everything happens faster than it used to. Snowboarding and wind surfing also became popular very quickly, but they had a steeper learning curve. The greatest attraction of stand-up paddling is that everyone can do it.”

It is sport for all ages, Lopez said, for all athletic skill levels and as one paraplegic athlete showed on Saturday, for nearly all physical abilities. Riding out on an adaptive board, Charles Webb wheeled onto his vessel and with a nudge from the shore, embarked on the open water course.

Webb, known as Charlie to friends and family, was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1986. He was 19. A Carlsbad native, Webb lived a carefree life surfing every chance his construction jobs would allow. But since that February 7th day, 26 years ago, Webb hadn’t taken a step or caught a wave.

“Surfing was my life,” Webb said. “But with my accident, I lost touch with surfing, and even though I swam, I lost touch with the ocean too.”

Call it a twist of fate, pure luck or intervention from a higher power, an encounter on a Carlsbad beach earlier this spring, set the wheels—or board—in motion to return Webb to the lifestyle he’s always held dear. Webb’s brother, Jason McDonald, a contest coordinator for the Bud Surf Tour in the 1980s, chanced upon the same beach where Kawika Watt was sharing his vision.

Watt, a Hawaiian native and avid surfer, had created an adaptive paddleboard to get wheelchair bound people out on the open water. While adaptive surfing, kayaking and paddleboarding is practiced, Watt pursued a way for people to maintain their self-sufficiency and dignity on the water, and thus Onit Ability Boards was born.

Charles Webb, a paraplegic athlete who started paddleboarding earlier this summer on an adaptive board, finishes the 4-mile open water race Saturday. ©RainbowSandals/Tom Servais
Charles Webb, a paraplegic athlete who started paddleboarding earlier this summer on an adaptive board, finishes the 4-mile open water race Saturday. ©RainbowSandals/Tom Servais

Utilizing technology dating back thousands of years to the Austronesian-speaking peoples of Southeast Asia, Watt created a paddleboard with outriggers attached to either side, providing stability to keep riders from tipping over, he said. The board is designed with a surfing wheelchair and a locking system allowing paddlers to wheel onto it straight from land. Two days after the surfside meeting, Webb found himself paddling the Oceanside Harbor.

That was six months ago.

Now, Webb credits Watt and the adaptive board with his rehabilitation. After more than two decades away from surfing, and three years of physical therapy nursing an injured right bicep muscle that left Webb unable to fish or climb into his car, he caught his first wave.

“Once he started training, Charlie got hungry,” Watt said.

In August, Webb hit the Doheny surf break. For months he and Watt had trained. Webb got to know the board and reintroduced himself to the ocean. And with the removal of the outriggers, Webb learned to steady himself without assistance. With his first waves ridden in 25 years, Webb was back. He said he never planned to compete, but after his girlfriend sent information about the Battle of the Paddle with a note saying, “maybe next year,” Webb thought “why not now?”

With the assistance of his coach and the backing of the crowd, Webb hit Doheny waters Saturday morning as hundreds of paddlers attempted to break last year’s record. With the addition of 60 finishers, participants in the open heat race may have just set a new Guinness World Record, said Pat Huber, marketing director of Rainbow Sandals. That is if all the numbers shake out.

Documentation of the feat has been submitted and world record keeping officials should make the call within the next three weeks, he said.

Local competitors (L to R) Shae Foudy, 14; Alleanna Clark, 14; and Sofia Dewolfe, 18, are all smiles after a stacked heat of elite qualifiers. Photo by Andrea Papagianis
Local competitors (L to R) Shae Foudy, 14; Alleanna Clark, 14; and Sofia Dewolfe, 18, are all smiles after a stacked heat of elite qualifiers. Photo by Andrea Papagianis

Locked into his board, Webb navigated the course with Brennan Rose, a waterman and elite stand-up paddler from Lahaina, Hawaii, by his side. Rose went on to compete in the weekend’s elite and distance races, placing 24th and third, respectively.

But even with his competitions ahead, Rose stayed with Webb throughout the race, a true testament to the SUP community and their embracing of evolution, Webb said.

“It has been a long journey, but this last six months as far as the journey goes, was quick,” Webb said. “All of a sudden I was finishing the race and people were hugging me.”

“I wish it would have been a little slower,” he said. “It was one of the greatest days of my life.”

Topping off the day, Webb was paid a visit by a surfing great, a man he’d looked up to throughout his surfing days. Laird Hamilton, who helped introduce Lopez and founder of the San Clemente-based Rainbow Sandals, Jay “Sparky” Longley, the event’s coordinators, to stand-up paddling sought him out.

With words touting his bravery and encouragement from his longtime idol, Webb was overcome with emotion and said the meeting nearly topped as the highlight of his day.

Just as the Battle gave one disabled athlete the opportunity to compete, hundreds of others—from the young to the old, and amateur to elite—were among the 1,300 paddlers weaving throughout the courses. The Battle of the Paddle not only provides wide access to competitors and spectators, but offers beginners and rising SUP athletes with a venue to race against the world’s best.

“The underlying thing to it all, is that everyone, whether an elite racer, a first-timer or anyone there to watch, they were all having a good time,” Lopez said. “That is one thing that makes this sport so appealing and what has made this such a success. Everyone has a good time.”

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